The director of WKKF's Mississippi and New Orleans programming speaks about President Obama's My Brother's Keeper initiative, the challenges unique to young black and Latino men, and what success will look like in Mississippi.

William Buster_5x7_300ppi
William M. Buster

President Obama recently launched My Brother’s Keeper, a public-private initiative that seeks to remove barriers to success that disproportionately affect young men and boys of color. As part of the initiative, the White House will collaborate with ten leading foundations, which together have pledged an additional $200 million over the next five years to support young men of color.

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) is among the philanthropic organizations participating in My Brother’s Keeper. Expanding opportunity for young men and boys of color has been a long-standing priority of the Kellogg Foundation, particularly in Mississippi, one of WKKF’s four areas of focus in the United States. WKKF’s grantees in Mississippi include Rethink Mississippi‘s parent organization, the Winter Institute.

RM spoke with William M. Buster, WKKF’s director of Mississippi and New Orleans programming, to find out what the Kellogg Foundation’s work will mean for young men of color in Mississippi.

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William M. Buster is director of Mississippi and New Orleans Programming at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Mich. In this role, he is responsible for leadership and vision in program conceptualization, design, planning, management, coordination, communication, evaluation, policy and learning of all grantmaking in Mississippi and New Orleans. Buster supports and facilitates the community change process within the region in alignment with the foundation’s mission and strategic framework, in collaboration and partnership with grantees and other external partners in the region, as well as other WKKF staff. He also serves on the Mission Driven Investments committee.

Buster has more than 13 years of experience in supporting and developing community advocacy, cross-community and cross-organization collaboration and economic development efforts. He also has extensive experience in supporting organizational development and capacity-building for nonprofits and nonprofit leaders.

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The following exchange took place over email and has been lightly edited for clarity.

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JM: Can you describe the challenges unique to young men and boys of color, especially those in Mississippi? 

WB: Given the history of Mississippi, we can agree that there is no more important place to focus on addressing these barriers and inequities.

For young boys of color in the state, the legacy of structural racism and contemporary colorblind practices results in disproportionate numbers of children of color, particularly boys, being unprepared to effectively contribute to society. Consider these statistics:

In 2009, American Human Development reported that the life expectancy of an African American born in Mississippi was 68 years old – this figure was 8 years lower than that of the average White Mississippian and shorter than the average lifespan of an American in 1960.

By the eighth grade, less than 10 percent of African American boys score at or above proficiency level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in reading or math.

According to the Schott Foundation for Public Education, black children in Mississippi are nearly three times more likely than white ones to receive out-of-school suspensions.

Black and Latino male graduation rates are about 50 percent – more than a full ten percentage points lower than that of whites in Mississippi and more than 25 percentage points lower than the national graduation rates for non-Latino white males.

JM: What factors are at the root of those challenges? To what extent are they systemic or institutional? 

WB: Boys and men of color must overcome barriers that are rooted in historic patterns of racial bias, segregation and poverty, from stop-and-frisk policies and street sweeps by police in New York, Chicago and elsewhere, to media portrayals that too often stereotype and criminalize, and overexposure to weapons, illegal drugs and alcohol. Such patterns and obstacles are deeply embedded in America’s education, juvenile justice, foster care, criminal justice and healthcare systems — resulting in higher unemployment, overrepresentation in prisons, poorer health and far fewer opportunities for these young men and boys to succeed.

[tabs] [tab title=”See President Obama’s announcement of My Brother’s Keeper”][/tab] [/tabs]

JM: WKKF has made Mississippi one of its regions of focus, directing many grants to work being done in the state. Please talk about the Kellogg Foundation’s ongoing efforts to support young males of color in Mississippi. How much of the work focuses on changing behaviors, and how much is focused on systemic or institutional change?

WB: Creating an environment that supports racial healing and eliminates barriers to opportunity for young males of color is critical to the future and success of Mississippi. The Kellogg Foundation has been committed to this work for more than 40 years. Just last year, WKKF made new grant commitments totaling $3.8 million to 26 community organizations in the state working to help set young men of color on the path to success. Grants range from $60,000 to $150,000 over three years.

Collectively, the community organizations are working toward building a comprehensive network of support from birth into adulthood for our young men and boys, developing their educational, emotional, physical and economic potential. We are partnering with the network of grantees to advance, connect and share on-the-ground solutions and create brighter futures for Mississippi’s children. The grants align with the foundation’s commitments to improve the health, education and financial stability of vulnerable children and their families.

[pullquote align=”right”]Creating an environment that supports racial healing and eliminates barriers to opportunity for young males of color is critical to the future and success of Mississippi. [/pullquote]

Mississippi is one of WKKF’s four priority places in the United States and the foundation has committed to the state for at least a generation to achieve a shared vision for Mississippi’s vulnerable children, families and communities. The foundation is especially concerned with the legacy of structural racism, which has resulted in disproportionate numbers of children of color, particularly boys, being unprepared to thrive in society. This investment will support community-led solutions and new strategies to achieve racial equity for young men of color in the state.

One example of the work being done by our partners is Call Me MISTER (Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models).

Call Me MISTER, at Jackson State University, is a perfect example of an innovative and effective leadership development program for African American males. The program, which started in Clemson University in South Carolina, reaches out to college-aged young men, preparing them to invest in younger children by becoming role models and teachers in elementary schools.  Thanks to this program, the quality of education in low-performing elementary schools goes up, and the MISTERs are prepared for careers of their own.

[alert type=”info”]For a list of the other programs connected to WKKF’s Young Males of Color work, visit the foundation’s website.[/alert]

JM: How will the President’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative change or enhance WKKF’s mission in Mississippi? 

WB: I don’t think that My Brother’s Keeper will change our approach to the work in Mississippi. My hope is that the visibility of the Presidency of the United States through My Brother’s Keeper  helps shine the light on the hard work that many community-based organizations in Mississippi and around the country are doing on behalf and in partnership with young males of color.

JM: The President has pledged to use his federal executive authority to support the My Brother’s Keeper work. Going back to the question about systemic causes, will there be a policy component on the state and local level?

WB: Just as we know that no single grant or program can create the systemic changes we seek in the state and the nation, we also know that changing conditions means addressing and changing public policies that keep inequities in place. Some of the work by our grantees is focused on community and civic engagement, as well as addressing flaws in the criminal justice system.

JM: How do you define success for the young men as individuals? 

WB: Through this work, we want to develop Mississippi’s next generation leaders. We want to see these young men have and take advantage of the opportunities in life to help them thrive and succeed. No demographic bears the burdens of inequity more intensely than these young men and boys. Many believe America has moved beyond race, but sobering and persistent economic, health and educational disparities present a different reality in communities of color. WKKF is committed to helping families and communities heal old wounds, and change hearts, minds and deeply held and often-unconscious biases that cause the structural inequities holding back young men of color and others in our society. Put simple, we want these barriers to become a thing of the past.

JM: How does WKKF define success for its collective work with young men of color in the state of Mississippi? 

WB: Last year, we launched a $3.8 million grantmaking effort focused on building the academic, social and physical capacity of young men of color in Mississippi.

Our goal is to identify organizations across Mississippi promoting new and effective strategies to achieve racial equity for boys of color and build a connected network of organizations increasing the academic, social, and leadership capacity of young men of color.

WKKF is partnering with these organizations over the next three years to advance, connect and share on-the-ground solutions to create brighter futures for all of Mississippi’s children. We look forward to learning from these grantees and sharing those lessons broadly. 

JM: The tragic deaths of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis have brought the prejudices faced by young black men into the national spotlight. Will WKKF’s work and/or that of My Brother’s Keeper also focus on challenging the pejorative stereotypes of young men of color held by many in society and often perpetuated through the media?  

WB: Not all Americans agree on what led to the Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis tragedies. However, the vast majority of Americans believe that all young people, regardless of their background, should have an opportunity to succeed. We want to see more young men graduating from school, building the skills to work and be responsible adults, and being able to make healthy choices. That’s where we can and should all be working together.

When we as a nation see boys and men of color for what they truly are, an incredible source of strength and hope for our communities, things will be different. When we make sure they have the mentoring, counseling, and after-school programs that give them the chances they wouldn’t have had, it will make a difference. When we ensure they have opportunities to make healthy choices and learn the skills to be responsible adults, it will make a difference. We need to make sure what works is available in every community so that more of our young men have a chance to live up their full potential.

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Home page photo credit: Pete Souza of the White House Photo Office, February 27, 2014. 

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